Friday, January 16, 2015

The ugliness of ardent nationalism

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, January 14.)

A small news item caught my eye a few days ago. It came from Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, and reported there had been yet another setback in moves toward re-unification of the divided Mediterranean island.
It was what you might call a groundhog moment; one that seems doomed to be repeated over and over again.

For almost as long as I can recall, politicians on either side of the so-called Green Line that divides Cyprus have periodically inched cautiously toward reconciliation, only to rear back when agreement seemed to be within reach. It’s like a strange, elaborate dance in which the partners occasionally hover tantalisingly close to each other but never quite touch, still less embrace.
This time the government of the “official” Cyprus in the south of the island blamed the breakdown  on Turkey, which effectively controls the internationally ostracised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, for wanting to search for oil and gas off the coast.

“Arrogant and provocative”, a spokesman for the Cyprus government said of Turkey.
Yeah, yeah, it’s all been heard before. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Disputes between the Greeks and Turks on Cyprus seem to be one of the few constants in an otherwise uncertain world.

It’s like Palestine and Israel: you suspect one side or the other will always find an excuse to pull back if negotiations are going too well. Ultimately, it seems, neither side wants to give anything away.
It’s all terribly sad. Cyprus is a beautiful island, rich in history, but its occupants seem determined not to get along.

It’s a reminder of how fortunate we are in remote New Zealand not to be cursed with ethnic and religious feuds like those that plague parts of the Old World. One of the greatest benefits of emigration is that it enables people to put age-old conflicts behind them and start afresh.
Most immigrants in countries such as New Zealand realise, fortunately, that life is much more pleasant when unencumbered by ancient enmities. (It’s a tragedy that the same can’t be said for all Muslim migrants in Europe, but that’s another story.).

Before I go any further, a brief history lesson. A former British colony, Cyprus was granted independence in 1960 but was invaded by Turkey in 1974 and has been divided ever since.
The stated reason for the invasion was that the Turkish minority on the island was at risk following a coup which deposed the elected government and replaced it with Greek nationalists agitating for union with Greece.

Certainly there had been conflict between the two ethnic groups and an element of what we now call ethnic cleansing. Both sides suffered, but the vulnerable Turkish minority had more reason to be fearful.
The Turks ended up with the northern part of the island while Greeks occupy the lower half, with United Nations troops patrolling the no-man’s-land – the Green Line – in between.

I probably wouldn’t take much interest in Cyprus had I not spent several days there nearly 15 years ago. It was like a Mediterranean Cuba, stuck in a time warp because of isolation imposed by international sanctions. The streets of Girne, the main town, were full of Vauxhall Vivas, Hillman Minxes and Austin Cambridges – hangovers from the days of British rule. 
Of course such a fleeting visit doesn’t qualify me as an authority, and even less so given that I was there as a guest of the government of Northern Cyprus, which is recognised only by Turkey.

But it did enable me to observe things on the ground, and I came away saddened that neighbours could be so divided on the basis of ethnicity (although there’s a religious factor too, the Turks being Muslim and the Greeks being Orthodox Christians – not that religion’s any excuse).
The experience reinforced for me the ugliness of ardent nationalism, once aptly characterised as a cock crowing on its own dunghill.

Regrettably, it seems to be the fate of people in some parts of the world to be at each other’s throats. Nationalists tend to have very long memories. History always seems close. Wars fought and humiliations suffered centuries ago still weigh heavily on people’s minds. Old grudges refuse to die. 
We saw that in the Balkans, especially. For as long as the communist strongman Marshal Tito ruled Yugoslavia after World War II, he kept a lid on rivalries between Serbs, Croats, Bosnian Muslims and others. But after Tito’s death in 1980 the lid came off, and the result was a bloodbath.

To its enduring shame, the world stood by and dithered while appalling atrocities were perpetrated. Would innocent lives have been shed in Cyprus too, without Turkish intervention? No one can say it wouldn’t have happened.
The lesson from the Balkans was that it’s too late to step in and hold people accountable once the killing is over. That conflict was brought to a close only when Nato aircraft started dropping bombs – but by then more than 100,000 people had died, most of them innocent of anything other than the accident of having been born into the wrong ethnic group.

Now the world has another moral crisis on its hands with the fanatics of Boko Haram and the Islamic State, and once again the international community seems ambivalent about intervening. It’s all too chillingly familiar.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Police claim public support for crackdown. Hmmm ...

The day after it published my column criticising the heavy-handed police enforcement of speeding and alcohol limits (see previous post below), The Dominion Post ran a story quoting Assistant Commissioner Dave Cliff [click to read] as saying police were very encouraged by public support for the police crackdown.

Saturday's story didn't mention my column, but I'm sure police would have taken note of the 400-plus comments that it generated - which were overwhelmingly supportive - and the 7000-plus readers who "shared" it.

In the circumstances, I would imagine police are very keen to cite any shred of evidence suggesting that the public supports their over-zealous approach, which would explain why Cliff was quick to boast of the number of *555 calls advising police of bad driver behaviour. But it's a big leap to infer from these phone calls, as Cliff did, that the public endorse what the police are doing. In fact it's such a huge leap, I wonder whether it's honest.

An equally plausible explanation is that people are phoning *555 because they  think the police have got it wrong. Many of those callers might be phoning in exasperation because they keep seeing dangerous driving that goes undetected and unpunished because of the rigid police fixation with speed traps and checkpoints.

Their message to the police may well be: "Where the bloody hell are you? While you're ticketing people for  driving slightly over the limit on relatively safe stretches of road or for having one glass of wine too many over dinner (even though they may still be perfectly capable of driving safely), out on the highway people are doing far more dangerous things - passing on double yellow lines, running red lights, texting while driving or  sticking doggedly to 70 kph and not noticing in their rear-vision mirror (because they never use it) that dozens of cars are stuck behind them."

Most people realise that patrol cars can't be everywhere, but what makes many motorists angry and cynical is that the police direct their resources at soft targets and pretend it's working. Even the AA, in its impeccably polite way, suggests the police have got it wrong, and that they should be focusing on known danger spots rather than blitzing safe stretches of road knowing that a few drivers are going to edge over the 100 kph limit and get pinged.

As much as Dave Cliff may want us to believe that the public are behind the police,  that's not the impression I've got from the reaction to last Friday's column or from the many people who have been in touch with me directly.

In fact if I were the police, or Police Minister Michael Woodhouse (heard of him?), I'd be deeply concerned - because the dissatisfaction is being expressed not by the anti-police brigade, but overwhelmingly by conservative, law-abiding people who would normally be heartily pro-police. These are the very people whose support and goodwill the police can least afford to lose.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Heavy-handed policing invites resentment

(First published in The Dominion Post, January 9.)

Human nature is a perverse thing. It consistently thwarts all attempts to coerce us into behaving the way bureaucrats, politicians and assorted control freaks think we should.
Take the road toll. Since early December New Zealanders have been subjected to a ceaseless barrage of police propaganda about the futility of trying to defy speed and alcohol limits.

Stern-looking police officers have been in our faces almost daily, warning that zero tolerance would be shown to lawbreakers.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who has found their lecturing increasingly tiresome and patronising.
Of course the police can claim the best possible justification for all this finger-wagging: it’s about saving lives. But what was the result? The road toll for the holiday period was more than double those of the previous two years.  For the full year, the toll was up by 44 on the record low of 2013.

The figures suggest that people crash for all manner of reasons, and that the emphasis on speed and alcohol is therefore simplistic. The police focus on speed and booze because these are easy targets, and when the road toll comes down they can take the credit.
In the ideal world envisaged by ever-hopeful bureaucrats, wayward citizens can be managed much as sheep are controlled by heading dogs. But people will never be harangued into driving safely; human nature is just too contrary.

Besides, police crackdowns are only one factor in achieving a lower road toll.
Improved road design, safer cars, better-equipped emergency services and more immediate medical attention all contribute too. It would be interesting to know, for example, how many lives have been saved because of the use of helicopters to get victims promptly to hospital.

Given that their heavy-handed propaganda campaign appears to have had minimal effect, I wonder if the police will now be humble enough to sit down and review their tactics.
They might also ponder the potential damage done to their public image by the zeal with which they immediately began enforcing the new alcohol limits.

It must have been like shooting fish in a barrel as they set up checkpoints to catch otherwise law-abiding citizens who had inadvertently consumed one glass of sauvignon blanc too many. 
It was a formidable display of police power, but how many lives did it save? And how many of the apprehended drivers were left feeling humiliated and angry at being made to feel like criminals for unwittingly doing something that was legal only days before, and that probably posed no danger to anyone?

Police will say, of course, that they were merely enforcing the law. But there is a point at which the benefits of aggressive law enforcement have to be weighed against potential negative consequences, such as public resentment. I’m not sure our police bosses have done this equation.
Sir Robert Peel, the 19th century British politician who established the police force on which ours is modelled, established the principle that police must operate with the consent of the people they serve. Put another way, they can’t risk burning off public goodwill.

Judging by public reaction to the zero tolerance campaign, as expressed in forums such as letters to the editor, talkback shows and online news sites, that’s exactly what is now happening.
This is the consequence some police officers feared when the old enforcement branch of the Ministry of Transport merged with the police in 1992. They realised the negative public sentiment attached to traffic cops was likely to rub off on police. And so it has turned out.

We tend to associate the phrase “police state” with brutal fascist regimes, but the term can apply to any country where the law is enforced so zealously that it impinges on the lives of responsible citizens. It’s not overstating things to suggest that our own police are in danger of slipping into that danger zone.
In November, TV3 reported that police had thrown an impregnable cordon around Hamilton’s CBD on a Saturday night. No vehicle could get out (or in, presumably) without going through a checkpoint. To me, that sounds almost like a police state.

Yes, I know the object of the exercise was to catch lawbreakers, but I bet I wasn’t alone in thinking we had crossed a new threshold. And I bet I wasn’t alone in feeling uncomfortable at the obvious satisfaction of the police inspector in charge, who seemed to relish exerting such control over the lives of her fellow citizens.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Why glamorise chaotic lives?

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 31.)
In the early hours of New Year’s Day 1953, a powder-blue Cadillac pulled into an all-night gas station at Oak Hill, West Virginia.
The driver, a man named Charles Carr, turned to speak to the lone passenger in the back seat. When there was no reply, Carr touched the man’s hand. It was cold.

Hank Williams, one of the first superstars of country music and still one of its most influential figures, had quietly expired while en route to his next engagement in Canton, Ohio. He was just 29.
We tend to think of early deaths from drug abuse and general excess as a phenomenon of the rock era, but Williams was ahead of his time. He died of heart failure brought on by a lethal cocktail of alcohol and pills. His personal life had been an utter mess.

The brilliant black jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker was another early casualty of the destructive lifestyle often associated with the music business. Parker’s heroin addiction resulted in him being fired so many times that he was sometimes reduced to busking in the street.
When he died in 1955 at the age of 34, the coroner who performed the autopsy presumed him to be aged between 50 and 60.

The British rock singer Joe Cocker, who died of lung cancer last week, could probably count himself relatively lucky. Cocker developed a serious drug and alcohol habit after his career went off the boil in the early 1970s, but he cleaned himself up. He lived to be 70, but you have to wonder whether his life was foreshortened by substance abuse.
Cocker lived through an era when drug use was rampant among rock musicians. And the casualties didn’t always die young, as the sad story of Jim Gordon attests.

Gordon was one of three drummers who backed Cocker on his wild Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour of America in 1970. He was greatly sought after as a studio musician and played on countless Los Angeles recording sessions.
He was also a drug user whose abusive and erratic behaviour became increasingly problematical. Eventually Gordon murdered his mother, claiming her voice had tormented him for years. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic and 30 years later remains in a California prison, having been ruled a continuing threat to society.

Was Gordon’s mental illness caused by his drug habit? I’m no psychiatrist, but it seems well established that mental illness can be greatly aggravated – if not triggered – by drug use.
Some of Gordon’s fellow musicians have testified that he never eased up on his drug and alcohol intake, even after he began having auditory hallucinations. As a consequence, he may spend the remainder of his life in jail.

The death toll among rock stars seemed to reach a peak in the late 1960s and early 70s. Some deaths were accidental (Mama Cass comes to mind), but drink and drugs were frequently implicated – most notably in the deaths of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin.
Even when death wasn’t the direct result of drugs or booze, there was often ample evidence of destructive lifestyles. Sam Cooke was shot dead by a motel owner; a deeply disturbed Marvin Gaye by his own father.

These deaths have been well documented, but it was only recently that a Sydney University psychologist took the trouble to undertake a study of the overall phenomenon. Professor Dianna Kenny examined the lives and deaths of 12,665 musicians and found that rock stars have a lifespan up to 25 years shorter than average, with high rates of death from accidents, suicide and homicide.
The unanswered question is whether some rock stars are predisposed to a high-risk lifestyle by their temperament (which is often fragile to start with), or whether we can blame the stress and pressure that often accompanies stardom. I suspect it’s often a combination of the two.

What can be said with certainty is that there’s nothing admirable or glamorous about an early death, which makes it all the more distasteful that many music writers insist on romanticising drugged-out, deeply flawed rock stars as if their lives are something to aspire to.
Musicians are frequently celebrated in the media not so much for the quality of their music as for the quantity of alcohol and drugs they have ingested or for the antisocial way they have behaved. Some journalists get a vicarious thrill from recounting the chaotic lives of the people they write about.

I recently read a book review in which reference was made to the Australian singer and songwriter Nick Cave, who has made no secret of his drug use, arriving on the London scene with his “glorious drug-addled rabble”. Sorry, but it’s hard to see any glory in heroin addiction.
A few months earlier I had read a fawning review of a book by the late Dave McArtney, of the Auckland band Hello Sailor. The reviewer wrote with almost breathless awe about the role drugs played in the band.

The irony is that McArtney’s fondness for the needle ultimately led to his sad death at 62 from liver cancer. I wonder whether, given his time again, McArtney might have chosen to exchange the drugs for a few precious extra years of life.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Using language to mould the perfect society

(First published in The Dominion Post, December 26.)
It’s a truism that the English language is a dynamic thing, constantly re-inventing itself. But the ground is shifting so fast these days that it must be hard for language scholars to keep up.
Consider the word “pupil”. In one of those inexplicable quirks of English usage, it seems suddenly to have been purged from the language.

“Pupil” used to be a handy way of distinguishing children and teenagers of primary and secondary school age from those attending tertiary institutions. But now it seems they’re all students, no matter what their age.
Hence when a primary school is damaged by fire, television reports that the “students” are in shock. Some of these “students” are only five or six years old.

To be consistent, this presumably means that children at kindergarten are now students too.
Changes like these don’t happen spontaneously. They have to start somewhere – but where?

I blame those shadowy figures known collectively as the language police, who are active in academia and the bureaucracy.
These ideologues view language as a means of achieving their vision of an ideal world – one in which all traces of discrimination, real or imagined, are ruthlessly rooted out.

If you view “pupil” as a demeaning word implying subservience, as they presumably do, then it follows that it must be stricken from the language. Impressionable young journalists fall into line and before you know it the word has virtually vanished from the media.
But in the process, the English language has lost another word that helps us express ourselves with precision and clarity – surely the primary object of communication.

“Actress” and “waitress” suffered a similar fate. It’s now considered sexist to distinguish females in these occupations from males; they are all actors and waiters.
Fowler’s Modern English Usage, the grammarian’s bible, laments that the feminist movement has had a devastating effect on many “-ess” words. In a triumph of ideology over logic, feminist language reformers decided there was something inherently degrading in that “-ess” suffix.
In fact all it does is convey an important and obvious distinction. Acknowledging there is a biological difference between males and females doesn’t mean the sexes are unequal, as the language police would have us believe.
A commonly heard argument is that it doesn’t matter how the language changes, as long as the meaning remains clear. But gender-free English can be ambiguous and misleading. To give an obvious example, to write that a man fancied a waiter in a Courtenay Place bar would create uncertainty as to whether the object of his desire was male or female. For journalists especially, words should be used to avoid ambiguity rather than create it,  
Misguided ideology is responsible for another linguistic absurdity in the form of the word “client”. A client used to be someone who paid for a professional service; now it’s any person who has received a service of any sort, even when someone else is picking up the tab.

The purpose is clear: it’s to make people feel better about themselves. “Client” sounds so much more dignified and deserving than “beneficiary”. It’s probably only a matter of time before imprisoned murderers and rapists become clients of the Corrections Department.  

But ideology can’t be blamed for all the puzzling changes taking place in the usage of English.
A surgery, for example, used to be a place where doctors or dentists administered treatment. Now the word is a synonym for an operation. Hence we hear that an injured sportsman has had a surgery, or that an eye specialist has carried out hundreds of cataract surgeries. “Operation” is bound for extinction.

Then we have nouns being used as verbs and vice-versa. “Impact”, “reference”, “leverage” and “task” used to be nouns. Now we read that a new health policy impacts on sick people, an author references previous works, an entrepreneur leverages his investment and an employee is tasked with increasing sales.
With “reveal” and “disconnect”, it’s the other way around. These are verbs that have morphed into nouns. Kim Dotcom promised “the big reveal” in the Auckland Town Hall and we heard after the election that there was a “disconnect” between Labour and the voters.

Odder still, consider “infringe” and “trespass”. People used to infringe rules; now we hear that a district council has “infringed” someone, meaning it has issued an infringement notice. The usage has been neatly inverted.
Similarly with trespass. You trespass when you illegally enter someone else’s property; all perfectly clear. But police and bureaucrats now talk about troublesome people being “trespassed” from premises such as casinos and ACC offices, meaning they have been banned.

What’s going on here? We can’t blame all these changes on ideologues bent on using language to mould the perfect society. More likely it’s the irrepressible human urge to re-invent things so as to create an illusion of progress.
Either that, or the English language is under the control of bored hobgoblins who keep switching everything around for the sake of pure mischief.

Friday, December 19, 2014

No partridge, and now no quail either

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 17.)

We had a sharp reminder last week of how merciless nature can be.
For several weeks my wife and I had been watching a pair of California quail that had taken up residence somewhere nearby and spent much of their time on our property.

It’s unusual to see quail in an urban environment (we live in the middle of town) and we assumed they were living in the reserve beyond our back fence.
They were very welcome visitors and we did our best to make them feel at home. California quail strike me as benign interlopers. They don’t seem to compete directly with native species for food, they don’t (unlike magpies) harass other birds and they don’t (unlike another Australian immigrant, the spur-winged plover) disturb the peace with raucous calls.

As time went by the quail, which are extremely wary birds, seemed to get used to our presence. For our part, we felt oddly flattered that they felt at home at our place. We hoped that in due course they would appear with a clutch of chicks.
We still assumed they were domiciled somewhere else. Then, a couple of weekends ago, my wife came across their nest as she was clearing undergrowth around the base of a gleditsia tree in the middle of our lawn.

All this time they had been under our noses. Remarkably, they hadn’t been deterred by the roar of the motor mower passing only a metre away.
We fretted that the birds might abandon the nest once their cover was blown, but no; the female resolutely stayed put. The male remained close by, keeping a vigilant eye out for predators.

About a week ago, we were rewarded with the sight we’d been hoping for. Mr and Mrs Quail appeared on the lawn leading seven balls of fluff so tiny that initially it was hard to see them.
We took an irrational pleasure in seeing these comical creatures scrambling to keep up with their parents as they explored the garden, but now we had a new reason to be anxious.

Being ground nesters, quail are highly susceptible to predators. I imagine that’s the reason they typically produce quite large clutches of chicks – sometimes 20 or more. The more chicks, the better the chance that at least some will survive.
Quail chicks also develop very quickly. They can leave the nest with their parents within 24 hours of hatching and can fly (well, as much as quails ever fly) within 10 days. But those 10 days were going to be critical.

We don’t own a cat but some of our neighbours do, and we regularly see them on our section. I’ll sometimes come up across a telltale scattering of feathers indicating one of these hunters has made a kill. (You can see where this is going, can’t you?)
We quickly became accustomed to the sight of the quail family roaming our section, the chicks growing visibly bigger by the day. We felt like proud proxy parents.

But when there was no sighting for 24 hours, I went looking. It didn’t take long. On the lawn, just a metre from our deck, I saw what I’d hoped not to see: two mangled, bloodied corpses, neatly laid almost on top of each other.
My first impression, from their long legs and surprisingly mature plumage, was that I was looking at the two adult birds. It was almost a relief to realise, on closer investigation, that they were chicks. It was amazing how quickly they had grown.

Of their parents and siblings, there was no sign. We could only hope they had escaped. Even if they had survived, we thought it unlikely that we would see them back. They would now regard our place as a danger zone.
In fact the two adults briefly re-appeared after an absence of several days, but we haven't seen them since. There was no sign of their chicks. Perhaps they were being kept in hiding, but it’s more likely that cats got the whole lot.

We all know this is how nature operates, but it’s a brutal lesson when it strikes so close to home.
Does it make me want to shoot the neighbours’ cats? No. Cats do what they’re biologically programmed to do, which is hunt and kill. But it has certainly made me more sympathetic to Gareth Morgan. I’ve been ambivalent about the presence of cats on our property in the past, but I’ll be observing a zero tolerance policy now.

Until a few days ago, I’d been toying with the idea of writing a last column before Christmas on the theme that while we don’t have a pear tree, still less a partridge, nature had given us a present in the form of that quail family. Unfortunately this is not that column.
It’s hard to explain why the birds brought us such pleasure. They just did. We can only hope the adults will try again, and that this time some chicks will survive.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

A nation succumbs to emotional incontinence

(First published in The Dominion Post, December 12.)
I think it was the British psychiatrist and writer Theodore Dalrymple who coined the term “emotional incontinence” to describe mass displays of extravagant grief.
Dalrymple wasn’t referring to the neurological disorder of that name, but a sociological phenomenon that was first noted in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death.

On that occasion the traditionally stoical British public indulged in an uncharacteristic outpouring of mawkish sentimentality, gathering in the streets to weep on each other’s shoulders at impromptu shrines decorated with teddy bears. (Why teddy bears? You tell me.)  
Until recently, that public grief-fest stood as the high-water mark of emotional incontinence. But astonishingly, Australians may have outdone the Brits with their reaction to the death of the cricketer Phillip Hughes.

I say “astonishingly” because Australia likes to think of itself as tough and resilient; a larrikin society where hard men in the tradition of Ned Kelly, Jimmy Spithill, Steve Irwin, Dennis Lillee and the fictional Crocodile Dundee spit in the eye of adversity.
But now the secret is out. Australia’s soft emotional underbelly has been exposed.

Hughes’ death not only triggered an overblown media frenzy that continues almost unabated after two weeks, but seemed to reduce some of his fellow players to gibbering wrecks. Who would have thought Australian cricketers were so emotionally fragile?
Counsellors were working with Australian teams, we were told. Some players might never pad up again.

So traumatised were the Australian players that on the day before this week’s postponed test match against India began, there was still doubt as to whether some would be fit to take the field.
Most memorably, we saw the Australian captain, Michael Clarke breaking down like an overwrought teenager.

“We must dig in and get through to tea,” a quivering Clarke told mourners at Hughes’ funeral, in what sounded suspiciously like a line composed by a PR hack to wring maximum sentiment from the occasion.
We hear a lot these days about PDAs – public displays of affection, usually involving celebrity couples, that are criticised as exercises in attention-seeking. I wonder if intemperate public displays of grief should be similarly discouraged.

Certainly, it’s hard to escape the feeling that such displays are often less about the dead than the living.
Deaths happen in sport – most notably in motor racing, where fellow drivers do their grieving in private and move on.

Strangely enough, I don’t recall Australia’s jockeys being so psychologically damaged by the deaths of two female colleagues in separate accidents in October, only weeks before the Hughes incident, that they cancelled all riding engagements. Jockeys, like racing drivers, must be made of sterner stuff than cricketers.
The grieving for Hughes wasn't just excessive to the point of self-indulgence; it was hypocritical too. As sports columnist Mark Reason pointed out in this paper, it was Michael Clarke who told an English batsman last year, “Face up – get ready for a broken f***ing arm”.

The Australian captain clearly loves to indulge in macho sledging, enjoys pumping up the intimidation, but goes to pieces when a teammate dies as a direct result of gladiatorial aggression on the field. Can he join the dots, or does his ego get in the way?
Of course social media had to get in on the act too, with a mass exercise in dribbling self-pity called Put Out Your Bats, the originator of which – a man so psychologically frail that he burst into tears when he heard of Hughes’ death – was lauded in the Australian media as a hero and a celebrity in his own right.

The Put Out Your Bats campaign captured perfectly the spirit of the social media era. It required little of its participants and achieved nothing beyond making them feel good for having engaged in what they no doubt thought was some sort of profound communal act of catharsis.
To be sure, Hughes’ death was a tragedy – not so much because it robbed Australia of a great cricketing talent, but because every life taken prematurely is a tragedy.

More than anyone, his family would have been grieving, but significantly we heard virtually nothing about them. It was all about the game and its cosseted, self-absorbed stars.
In the same week that Hughes died, my wife lost a much-loved sister. She nursed her in her final days and was with her when she breathed her last.

Bereavement didn’t leave my wife in a state of abject helplessness. The day after we held a farewell ceremony for her sister, she was back at work. That’s what people do in the real world. They just get on with things.